Can and should Lean be applied in Labs?

Lean originated in the automotive industry and it’s easy to see how the tools and concepts are a good fit for that type of manufacturing. It’s much less obvious however that Lean can and should be applied in Labs.  In recent times Lean Lab projects have become quite common but….

Is Lean really an appropriate strategy in the Lab environment or are labs just blindly following trends?

The origins of lean

The term “Lean Manufacturing” was first coined in 1990 by MIT researchers studying the global automotive industry. They used the term (now commonly abbreviated to ‘Lean’) to describe what they saw in Japanese car plants (especially Toyota).

Toyota called their approach the Toyota Production system (or TPS). It was and still is based on ‘flow and pull’. It was developed by Taichii Ohno and Shigeo Shingo both of whom had books translated into English in the late eighties when the productivity and quality gains of the Toyota production system became evident to the outside world. 

The west began to adopt the principles of the Toyota system under a variety of manufacturing systems such as ‘Just in Time’ (JIT), World Class Manufacturing (WCM), Continuous Flow Manufacturing (CFM) and others. However it was not until the Lean Manufacturing label came along that it really took off. Abbreviating the label from Lean Manufacturing to simply ‘Lean’ allowed the approach to ‘jump ship’ into the processing and service industries. 

What is Lean anyway?

If you ask people this question, most will answer “waste elimination”. But this is only a partial answer. Toyota identified 3 primary wasteful practices, one of which is waste (or Muda in Japanese). Many weaker Lean projects are based solely on reducing or eliminating Muda. However the intent of the Toyota Production System and of Lean is to maximize value by minimising all wasteful practices.

Of course these include Muda but also:

  • Mura – uneveness (volatility)
  • Muri – overburden (over loading of people or equipment)

The significance of Mura and Muri is often misunderstood and underestimated. Flow, Pull and Standard Work are also key concepts in the Toyota system but once again these are often poorly understood and inadequately addressed in many Lean projects. There is a simple reason for this. Waste is easy to see and understand and tools like Value Stream Mapping help identify lots of wastes to work on whereas Levelling and Flow are much more difficult to understand and address, particularly in Labs. Unfortunately Lean is a space littered with well ‘qualified’ but poor practitioners.

Eliminating waste from a levelled flowed lab process, instead of at isolated points creates processes that need less human effort, less space, and less time to test samples at less cost and with fewer errors and test failures, than traditional labs. Lean labs are also able to respond to changing customer priorities with fast throughput times.

Labs are Different

Labs are not the same as manufacturing environments:

  • There is usually more workload and mix volatility. i.e. the mix and volume of samples often varies significantly day to day and week to week.
  • There is often a complex mix of routine and non routine testing, other tasks and project work all sharing the same resources.
  • There is often a significant additional GMP/GLP compliance burden.
  • For many tests the effort required to set up a test is significant compared to the sample run time - this makes ‘one piece flow’ unfeasible and some grouping of samples essential.
  • Typically, analyst travel time (to gather materials, etc) is a much smaller proportion of the overall task time than in manufacturing. This means that the ‘movement’ waste is less significant and Lean tools like ‘spaghetti diagrams’ and 5S are less important.
  • Individual Analyst workloads often vary from day to day and week to week.
  • There is usually a higher degree of variety and complexity in individual daily roles.
  • Many standard Lean Tools like Line Balance charts, Value Stream Mapping, Takt time, etc. work differently (if at all).
  • The core principles of Lean still apply but a generic approach using a standard tool kit will struggle in the Lab.


When lean is applied properly in labs productivity improvements of between 25% and 50% and/or lead-time reductions of 80% are not unusual. Other benefits include: 

  • Consistent predictable performance
  • Reduced levels of WIP and inventory
  • Greater empowerment of laboratory personnel
  • A culture of pro-active performance management and continuous improvement
  • Improved customer service levels.


Laboratories are not the same as manufacturing environments. But Lean can and should be applied to labs. A generic approach will not work but careful application of the techniques based on a thorough understanding of Lab processes will deliver significant benefits in terms of cost or speed or both. 

While most of the key principles of Lean apply, there are many unique challenges involved in effectively implementing them in laboratories.

Our consultants can provide further information on the above and discuss any aspect of Real Lean Transformation, simply set-up a call today.